Michelle Clemens graced the air here at Action 2 News for three years as a reporter before a heart infection sidelined her. That infection led to a series of health issues that nearly killed her.
Michelle Clemens (WBAY photo)
"I am determined," Michelle says.
That has been Michelle's mantra ever since May 11, 2017, when a debilitating headache led her father to rush her to the hospital.
"She said, 'Daddy, I'm really scared. I don't want to die,'" Vince Clemens recalls.
In the emergency room, a scan showed Michelle suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm -- her condition so critical, she was airlifted to ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah.
"Things were really bad," Dr. Sumon Bhattacharjee of Neuroscience Group says. "She had a pretty substantial hemorrhage. She had a lot of underlying medical issues that kind of led to that, so she was ill prior to that, and things kind of deteriorated, so she was very critically ill."
Dr. Bhattacharjee and nurse practitioner Christine Munson performed two emergency brain surgeries on Michelle.
The Clemens family credits Munson for pushing for the second surgery.
"Between her first and second surgeries, I had learned certain things about Michelle, like that she was a marathon runner and she actually had a trip planned that summer to go on an African safari, and I thought, this girl is not done, she's just not done, and I just wanted to go," Munson said.
But even after that second surgery there were questions.
"It wasn't even day to day, it was hour to hour at that point," mom Laura Clemens says. "Did not know survivability, and if Michelle survived what her life would look like at that point, either, the deficits, had no idea. Absolutely, total uncertainty."
Michelle couldn't breathe on her own. She was on a ventilator and in a drug-induced coma for almost a week.
"Some days she'd respond to some things, other days she wouldn't," her mom says.
There was so much uncertainty.
But as the days went on, Michelle started to show signs of recovery.
"She is a definite, definite miracle. There is no, no doubt," Laura says.
After almost a month at ThedaCare, she was released and headed home to the Chicago area to begin intense inpatient rehab at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab for another four weeks.
Then, from inpatient rehab, Michelle went back to school, as she called it, for eight months of outpatient therapy. Five days a week she received a combination of speech, physical and occupational therapy.
When it's pointed out to her how well she can pinch with just two fingers, Michelle happily exclaims, "I know!"
She graduated from the program in March.
"She definitely had some extra motivation and determination. Everybody's brain will heal a little bit differently, but I think the intensive amount of therapy that she received her was a strong testament to the power and the influence of that on her brain being able to rebuild," Marilyn Leonardo of the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab said.
But the effects of the aneurysm still impact Michelle's speech.
"She has this aphasia, which is trouble finding the words," dad Vince says.
She does speech therapy six days a week. Her parents are researching and finding an online therapist through a company called Aphasia Toolbox.
With a motion of hair brushing, Michelle is asked, "What do you brush?"
"I brush hair," Michelle answers.
"There you go! You did it!"
The repetition and practice are making a difference.
"We're still seeing improvements at one year -- and good improvements at this point," mom Laura says.
Michelle was an avid runner -- a marathoner -- but her aneurysm caused some right side paralysis, including her dominant hand.
Several times a week she works with a physical therapist, not only stretching and strengthening her right side but her therapist recently started to incorporate other treatments.
"As soon as we started a little bit of the dry needling, she actually brushed her teeth for the first time with her right hand, which was very exciting," Jake Livingston of NOVA Care Rehab said.
"I'm making progress," Michelle says.
While recovery has become her full-time job, Michelle has returned to some of her favorite activities: Working out and hitting the treadmill for a daily run.
It's that positive attitude and the support of others, including her WBAY family, that have helped her get through this ordeal.
"Viewers, thank you. Thank you," she says.
"All the thoughts and prayers, I think, really lifted her up, and we're really lucky," Vince says.
Because a year ago, no one knew if Michelle would survive. Today she's exceeding expectations.
"Stronger every day!" Michelle exclaims.
Michelle has already defied the odds, and as she recovers the sky is the limit as she pursues motivational speaking and even a return to TV.